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Free test for coronavirus only for the poorest: SC

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The Supreme Court on Monday said the free tests for coronavirus will be available only to the poorest, leaving the government to decide who else should get the benefit.

Private laboratories, the court said, can continue to charge the testing fee as fixed by the Indian Council of Medical Research, the country’s nodal body for coronavirus testing. The Centre has allowed private laboratories to charge patients up to Rs4,500 per test.

The court, which had last week said that free tests for COVID-19 should be available to all, changed its decision after private laboratories said they would not be able to afford it.

“We are seeing that the government is doing its best. We are modifying our order. We are saying that government can decide which categories get free testing,” said the judges hearing the case.

In its order today, the court said free testing for COVID-19 will be available to “persons eligible under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana as already implemented by the Government of India, and any other category of economically weaker sections of the society as notified by the Government”.

The Centre and the health ministry can decide whether “any other categories of the weaker sections”, like workers belonging to low-income groups in the informal sectors or beneficiaries of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) and others should be eligible.

The government should make this decision within a week and inform the court, the judges said. Last week, the court had ordered free testing for COVID-19, calling it a humanitarian issue.

But most private laboratories objected, saying even under the government-mandated charge of Rs4,500, they are barely able to recover the costs, which include specific infrastructure, reagents, consumables, and manpower.

Calling the order “humanitarian”, Biocon Ltd Chairperson Kiran Mazumdar Shaw said it would be “impractical” to implement.

“Supreme Court Orders All Coronavirus Tests To Be Made Free—a judgment that will severely affect testing. Pvt labs simply cannot be expected to run their businesses on credit,” she had tweeted.

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